I don’t understand the process by which a reader connects with a story. As far as I can tell, some kind of secret frequency has to be matched between the story and the reader, and they resonate.
When it happens to me, I feel like a gong being struck, and I vibrate and vibrate and vibrate until the world looks slightly askew. It’s the kind of experience that makes reading fiction worthwhile — one hit like that makes up for reading twenty duds.
It’s not plot — I’ve liked stories with no plot and stories with totally cliched plots. It’s not theme — I’ve liked stories with really grand and deep themes and stories that don’t even try. It’s not “the writing” — I’ve liked stories that are very poetic, ornate, and twist and dance with every sentence, and stories that rely on transparent prose. It’s not editorial judgment — in a good anthology or issue of a major magazine, I usually come away with only one or two stories that hit me that way. It’s not even the author — I can’t say there’s a single author whose every work I’ve loved.
I like the unpredictability. I like the magic.
(But my reading experience sometimes really depresses me as a writer — I can’t even articulate why the magic works for me as a reader, so how am I supposed to replicate it as a writer? It’s also why I kind of scoff at any writing “advice” — the stories that work so well for me almost always break some so-called “rules.”)
Anyway, back on topic. This month, I read two stories that made me vibrate, a REALLY good month. The stories are “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” by Rachel Swirsky and “In Light of Recent Events I Have Reconsidered The Wisdom of Your Space Elevator” by Helena Bell. My discussion won’t be spoiler-y, but you might still want to go read the stories before coming back to my thoughts after the fold.
“If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love,” by Rachel Swirsky, March 5, 2013 (Apex): The structure of this story is incredible: second-person POV where each paragraph states a premise and draws a conclusion, and the conclusion is fed into the next paragraph as a new premise. The language, as with all of Swirsky’s fiction, is carefully crafted and exquisite. It starts off whimsical but once you’ve gotten used to the rhythm, it takes an unexpected turn. This is a story about the logic of love, the fantasy of courage and revenge, and above all, the mix of regret and yearning and powerlessness and rage that we feel at being unable to protect those we most love.
“In Light of Recent Events I Have Reconsidered The Wisdom of Your Space Elevator,” by Helena Bell, Shimmer #16: Another second-person POV story told with Bell’s trademark matter-of-fact mix of the weirdly fantastic and and the insistently quotidian. One of the pleasures of Bell’s prose is her skill at using a perfect, compact phrase to evoke textures and ideas and transformations that it would take me paragraphs to get across (example: “One by one you brought them into your father’s attic and took away their fear of the unknown with the breath of exploratory longing”). This is a story about childhood (or maybe its end), aliens (or maybe not), the strange beauty of a growing understanding when the world seems to transform irrevocably around you (or maybe it’s just life going on).
I highly, highly recommend both of these stories, and definitely think they’re award-worthy. Their authors humble me with their skill.
I do seem to have a weakness for second-person narratives… maybe there’s something there…